The Electoral College is an abomination: an antidemocratic relic of the unconscionable compromises made during America’s founding that should never have been allowed to linger into the 21st century. Designed to thwart the will of the people on those occasions when the voters might favor a candidate with what Alexander Hamilton described as the “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity,” the Electoral College has evolved as a uniquely destructive barrier to the modern practice of democracy.
Hamilton and others imagined that an elite institution of electors would ensure “a constant probability of seeing the [presidency] filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.” While that statement may intrigue #NeverTrumpers seeking one last avenue for averting a reality-TV presidency, the Electoral College has never operated as a quality-assurance mechanism: Superior contenders have often been rejected by partisan electors. Nor does it function in any way as an egalitarian institution, given its nsychant for overturning the popular will. If this foul remnant of 18th-century oligarchy (and the fears of Southern politicians that democracy might undermine the power of slave states) isn’t abolished or, at the very least, constrained, there is good reason to believe the College will continue to do so with greater frequency in the years to come.
This is no idle threat. For the second time in 16 years, the winner of the national popular vote will be denied the presidency by an institution that rejects the basic premise used to elect everyone from members of local school boards to members of Congress. This year’s rejection is epic in scope and nature: If it was objectionable that George W. Bush became president despite being defeated by Al Gore in 2000 by a margin of 543,895 votes, then it should be considered outrageous that Donald Trump will assume the presidency despite losing to Hillary Clinton by at least 2.2 million votes—and claim a mandate, along with his Republican allies, to radically change America.
Clinton’s popular-vote lead is greater than those that put John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and, of course, George W. Bush in the White House. But Clinton’s victory is rendered meaningless by an institution that Trump himself once identified as “a disaster for democracy.”
Under the College’s flawed calculus, a candidate who is beaten convincingly in the national popular vote can still prevail with narrow wins in a handful of competitive states. In Michigan, for example, Trump led Clinton by less than 11,000 votes out of 4.8 million cast, and yet he received all 16 of the state’s electoral votes. And here’s the truly frustrating reality: Different states have different systems for casting, counting, and recounting votes. Without an absolute guarantee of voting rights and an assurance that votes are cast and counted according to a single national standard, the electoral pathologies of individual states will continue to warp the Electoral College in ways that define the race for the presidency.
After the Green Party demanded a recount of the close results in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—swing states that helped tip the Electoral College to Trump—the president-elect launched a tweet storm attacking the references to his popular-vote defeat. He falsely asserted that this year’s election featured “serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire and California”—all states he lost—and claimed, “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” The billionaire’s remarks were absurd—and unsettling in their reflection of right-wing paranoia over nonexistent threats. The real issue, as The Nation’s Ari Berman has reported, is the continuing assault on voting rights in states run by Republican governors and legislatures, and the related fact that too many states have made it too hard to cast and count votes. That’s why the call for a recount captured the popular imagination, spurring millions of dollars in donations to pay for reviews that Green Party candidate Jill Stein argued were primarily intended to address concerns about the integrity of our elections.
However, even if we had a consistent voting standard across all 50 states, that wouldn’t make the Electoral College a fair reflection of America. Defenders of the institution claim that it assures representation for smaller states. But this year, five of the 10 smallest states in the union (Vermont, Delaware, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Maine, as well as the District of Columbia) delivered more ballots for Clinton than for Trump. The real issue arises from the fact that the current system overrepresents small states in a way that can help popular-vote losers become Electoral College winners. Every state, no matter its population, gets at least three Electoral College votes. In practical terms, that means an elector from Wyoming speaks for roughly 58,000 Trump voters, while an elector from California speaks for roughly 150,000 Clinton voters. Yet when the Electoral College meets this month, the Wyoming elector’s vote will count for just as much as the California elector’s vote. If the coastal and cosmopolitan population centers continue to grow as they have, the issues that arise from this disproportional distribution could become even more pronounced. So it may not be an anomaly that we have seen the Electoral College overrule two Democratic wins in the popular vote in less than two decades. This may well be the shape of things to come—unless Americans get serious about reform.
There are national movements under way to address the mess made when the Electoral College trumps democracy. California Senator Barbara Boxer has proposed a constitutional amendment to abolish the institution, stating: “The Electoral College is an outdated, undemocratic system that does not reflect our modern society, and it needs to change immediately.”
While a case can be made that Trump-doubting Republicans who want their party to be a truly national institution once again should back an amendment like Boxer’s, there’s no reason to expect any immediate movement in Congress. (If anything, the fear is that GOP strategists will again try to implement schemes that would distribute electoral votes based on the popular vote in congressional districts, which would allow partisans to gerrymander both the US House and the Electoral College.)
Fortunately, there’s another route to reform: the bipartisan National Popular Vote initiative. Promoted by the group FairVote, it commits the states to respect the will of the people as part of a multistate compact, under which states pledge to assign their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote nationwide. The compact only takes effect when states with a majority of the nation’s electoral votes—270 or more—have signed on. So far, 10 states and the District of Columbia—totaling 165 votes—have agreed to the compact. Pro-compact bills have been submitted in additional states across the country, with both Democratic and Republican support; they should gain traction as the bitter experience of 2016 reminds Americans that something must be done to address the structural absurdity of elections that allow losers to become presidents.